Planet Earth

Funky Chicken

By Carl ZimmerJan 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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There was a giddy buzz last October in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. During the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, photographs of a new fossil from China attracted crowds and gasps. It was the dream of many of the attendees: a feathered dinosaur.

In the early 1970s a handful of paleontologists led by John Ostrom of Yale had resurrected the discarded nineteenth-century notion that birds were the living descendants of dinosaurs--more precisely, Ostrom said, of the nimble, bipedal carnivores known as theropods. As more detailed studies appeared in the 1980s, most researchers came to accept the link; the skeletons of birds and theropods seemed to have much in common. But one hallmark of birds had never been found on any dinosaur fossil. If Ostrom and his supporters are right, the dinosaurian ancestors of birds should have had feathers as well.

Theory may have just met reality. Last summer a Chinese farmer in Lioaning Province uncovered a fossil at least 120 million years old. The small bipedal dinosaur, with perfectly normal dinosaur arms, had a strange dark stripe running along its back. The fossil--a slab of mudstone mixed with ash, and its matching counterpart--was sold to two Chinese paleontological institutes. In October, Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta got a chance to inspect it while visiting China. Although he spent less than an hour examining it, he concluded that it was related to the small theropod Compsognathus. Along the tail he could also see that the dark border was made up of shafts, each of which had fine projections. You can’t come to any conclusion other than that they’re feathers, says Currie.

The researchers who marveled at Currie’s photographs in New York last October tended to agree; Ostrom had to sit down to catch his breath. It was not just the fact of a feathered theropod but which feathered theropod had been found that astonished them. The Chinese animal lived as much as 30 million years after Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird; and while Compsognathus is closely related to birds, there are several theropods that are much closer kin, such as Velociraptor and even Tyrannosaurus rex. Did the 40-foot-long T. rex have feathers? Ridiculous as the image might seem, if a close relative of Compsognathus had feathers, then they may have been fairly common among theropods. Presumably feathers served as insulating coats at first, only later evolving into flying equipment among some dinosaurs.

But an hour spent with a fossil is not enough for anyone to feel secure with such conclusions. What’s needed now is a formal scientific report that shows what the structures on the Chinese dinosaur’s back look like under a microscope. A name would help, too.

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